By Maya Thornell-Sandifor, Senior Program Officer, Women’s Foundation of California
A couple of weeks ago I turned on CNN to watch an investigative show about domestic sex trafficking. A portion of the program showed a sting operation in Oakland, California in which undercover detectives used a popular online site to catch pimps selling underaged girls for sex. During the sting, the detectives confronted a young woman,17 years old and visibly pregnant, who was managing solicitations online from a room in the same hotel where they had set up their operation. Detectives convinced the young woman to give up her pimp. She admitted that he had sold her and other girls for sex for two years and she had never seen a dime of the profits.
Before seeing the show on CNN I knew about domestic sex trafficking.* The Women’s Foundation of California has funded several organizations that work with young women who are sexually exploited minors. However, seeing the image of a pregnant and fragile looking 17 year old and hearing detectives talk about the 11 year old twins who were sent to their hotel room for a date that had been arranged online made me physically ill. It brought the problem home.
Domestic sex trafficking of young women and girls (11-18) is becoming an epidemic problem in the nation with estimates of up to 300,000 children being sold for sex annually on the street or through the internet. Regions of California have become hot beds for sex trafficking activities as pimps find the business of selling girls for sex easy, low-risk and highly lucrative.
We know from organizations that work with sexually exploited young women that those who fall victim to sex trafficking are a vulnerable population. These women are victims, not criminals.
An Alameda County network of agencies that addresses this issue surveyed 147 youth and found that
- 98% are female; average age 15 and a half years old.
- 82% of the participants have run away from home one or more times
- 61% had been raped one or more times; the average age at first rape was 11
- 55% were foster care youth from group homes
- 60% had been arrested for solicitation
- 58% were currently on probation
- 25% had been hospitalized at least once for a mental illness or episode.
There are few targeted interventions and specialized services to address the complex and interconnected needs of these young people. Furthermore, there is little awareness in our communities about the problem and the agencies that come into contact with these young people – police departments, service agencies, schools and the foster system – are inconsistent in how they respond and treat them.
But there is something we can do.
A federal bill (H.R. 5575) will provide crucial funding and policies to begin to combat sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. If passed, the bill provides up to $2.5 million to organizations across the nation to implement intervention plans that include services and shelter for survivors, special training for law enforcement and social service providers and a plan for deterring and prosecuting sex trafficking offenses. It also takes steps towards identifying minors as victims – not criminals – once they come in contact with the criminal justice system. The bill requires that states promptly report information about missing or abducted children to law enforcement for entry into existing National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database and that children who have been reported missing three or more times in a year be designated as an “endangered juvenile” in the NCIC database.
H.R. 5575 is not a perfect bill. I would like to see an option added that includes spending for medical services since many of the young women face serious mental and physical health problems as a result of their victimization and because clinics are a main interface for victims to access help and support. Despite this, H.R. 5575 is a good beginning. It brings both national attention and resources to the issue of domestic trafficking.
A congressional hearing on this bill is scheduled for Wednesday, September 15. TAKE ACTION: Go to the A Future Not a Past website and ask your representative to support H.R. 5575.
Let’s put an end to the abuse and victimization of young women and girls.
*Domestic trafficking refers to trafficking of persons within US borders, as distinguished from across borders. It includes but is not limited to sexual exploitation. For example, people are “recruited” for work in factories and personal homes, only to find themselves subjected to severe exploitation and near-slavery conditions. Learn more.